Sunday, January 2, 2022

The Green Knight (2021).

It's difficult to know where to begin on this one.  There are a number of reasons for that.  Part of it is down the seeming inscrutability of the material under the microscope.  The other lies in the specific type of story we have to deal with.  A better way of putting might be described as the problem of source materials.  The last thing I want to do is turn this into a dry-as-dust- academic study.  I tend to pride myself on making complex literary matters both interesting and graspable for a very large audience.  The real challenge (or one of them, at least) seems to lie in those cases where there really is a lot of material to talk about, so that often you don't know what's the right place to start from.  Right now, I think the best vantage point in which to get our bearings would be to take a survey of the literary landscape before us.  Perhaps that will help us gain something like a usable compass bearing.  A quick enough scan of the territory reveals a familiar setting before our eyes.  It's a field of green underneath, and blue or gray above.  It's also an enchanted forest with a mysterious castle at its heart, or else its the blasted waste land of some long, forgotten field of battle.  The territory seems familiar enough, right down to the knights in shining armor, and the hidden creatures peering at us from the darkness of the trees.  We've been here before.

It could just be that the legends of King Arthur and his Knights present a very special challenge to modern audiences.  I wrote just a moment ago that we've already been through this particular secondary world.  In sense, I guess that statement is true enough.  Or is it?  I mean I don't know about you, it's just that when it comes to Camelot, I've sort of grown up learning all the familiar signposts and benchmarks.  When I was kid, my parents got my one of those quaint, old, clam-shell video cassette copies of The Sword and the Stone, one day.  I can't even recall if it was for a birthday or something like it.  I just know that was my first introduction to the greatest mythical monarch of the British Isles.  Except, or course, we never truly see him in that role for the entirety of the Disney film.  He's only just learning to wear the crown by the time the credits role.  It's also where I first learned about Merlin, the greatest wizard and magical practitioner of all time, as well as the future kingdom itself.

I suppose it's the closest thing anyone will have in terms of a fair to going on decent enough first introduction to the mythos, for better or worse.  From there, what little I've gathered about Arthuriana over the years has been haphazard and slip-shod, probably just like everyone else.  I learned about the Holy Grail, first from Steven Spielberg, and then from Monty Python.  In time I came to know about Malory and Mordred and Morgan Le Fay, and the rise and fall of a great empire, like a hero is supposed to do (or so it's claimed, I have a doubt or two about certain aspects of that trope).  Beyond this, however, I'm not sure that I know any more than anyone else in the audience.  It is just possible that I may have described the constant irony of the Camelot mythos.  It's become one of those ill-defined standbys.  A constant background presence which remains largely unexplored except for the most familiar halls and passageways.  What makes it seem more familiar than it is has to be the fact that it is able to stick in the memory from an early age.  It's enough to lull one into a false sense of security.  You think it's all an open book, when in truth you've barely read little more than a page or two in a much larger story.  I suppose that's just the way it has to be for most folks.  However, I'm not sure it's helpful for a getting a read on a film like The Green Knight.

In the introduction to a Young Adult compendium of the legends, Roger Lancelyn Green provides us with the first hints as to why the terrain of this particular secondary world is more wide, vast, and sometimes a lot more treacherous than we think we know.  "The story of King Arthur and the adventures of his knights have been told so very many times that there seems at first sight little excuse for retelling them yet again.  But, setting aside poetical versions of a variety of the legends made by such poets as Dryden, Morris, Tennyson, Swinburne, and Charles Williams, scarcely any writer in English has done more than condense the narrative of Sir Thomas Malory, cutting and simplifying according to the age of his audience, but always following him with more or less exactitude.  Moreover, it has recently been shown that Malory himself did not write his Book of King Arthur as a single narrative, but merely as a collection of quite separate stories, based on a variety of old French romances.  There is a certain coherence, but no fixed plan (xi)".


It sort of gets worse when you find out about the adventures of a lot of other knights that you really don't know about.  Most of us these days have a sort of passing familiarity with characters like Lancelot, and Galahad.  However, who on earth is Sir Gareth of the Kitchens?  All I know is I'll swear I didn't make that up.  We've heard of figures like Sir Bedivere, yet what is it he did, exactly?  What of Tristan and Isolde?  Who were they?  Here's an even better question.  Who wrote Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?  It isn't until this point is reached that you begin to realize you've maybe stumbled a bit deeper into the forest than you probably meant to go.  Once you step past the well trodden paths, it seems, the risk of getting lost is a bit too easy.  The simple fact is the myth of Arthur and his world is probably deeper and steeper than our current level of pop-cultural awareness can allow.  I think it's this last fact which helps explain the type of reception that's greeted David Lowery's 2021 adaptation of one of the most obscurely famous of the legends of Camelot.  It's sort of all most of us can do to even bother asking the most important question.  Is the story that Lowery has to tell any good?

The Story.

Once a upon a time, there was a knight, and there was a kingdom.  You've no doubt heard of the kingdom itself.  It was the fair land of Camelot, ruled over by the just and noble Arthur (Sean Harris), and his wise and beautiful queen, Guinevere (Kate Dickie).  Both of them were well renowned for their exploits.  The tales, triumphs, and tragedies of their kingdom were (and still remain) familiar throughout the land.  It was all a long time ago, of course, as these things often tend to be.  It was so far back, in fact, that it's nowadays difficult to recall just where the seat of their kingdom resided.  The folk hereabouts are proud of their heritage, and there are many who would like to try and lay a claim to the kingdom for their own purposes, whether this counsel be wise or no.  Some claim it was on the Cornish coast.  Others that it was nestled in the open, emerald fields of Glastonbury Tor.  Others insist that it's true location was always in Logres, wherever that may be.  What is known for certain is that, for one brief and shining moment, Arthur and Guinevere ruled over a time of relative peace and prosperity in the land.  That's not to say it was ever perfect, nor that troubles didn't still arise now and then, here and there.  And yet, for the purposes of most of us, it was always a bit more than good enough.

This era of peace and stability was brought at great costs, and sacrifices, of course.  In fact, the gaining of the peace itself is where the greatest exploits and tales of Arthur and his company are to be found.  The story I have to tell you about today is concerned with none of those, however.  As I have said, there was a kingdom, and then there was a knight.  Gawain was his name.  A decent enough title, as these things go.  Who he was, and what he was about are where my story begins.  Gawain (Dev Patel) seems to have been the latest addition to the Court of the Round Table.  Perhaps he's best described as gray of character, and uncertain of motive.  As he once explained to his uncle, the King, "I have no tales of my own to tell".  To which his aunt, the Queen, corrected him.  "Yet", she replied, "you have none to tell yet".  


Now it was on the Eve of Christmas, and the winter was dull and leaden, and the fires were lit, and the halls of Camelot where decked and wreathed in shades of red and green, almost as an act of defiance against the elements.  The great court of the Round Table knew many a guest that night, most of whom had long since made a name for themselves.  In addition to the various lords and ladies of the realm, at the famous Table itself were seated the bravest of Arthur's knights.  All save one, and that seat the King gave over to his nephew, a very startled, and awkward looking Gawain.  Before the feasting and celebration could begin, Arthur requested a story, or a tale of wonders and great deeds from any of the company in his retinue.  That's when the doors to the great hall were thrown open.  The visitor walked in on his horse.  It was an imposing looking stead, yet the rider himself was even more so.  He was the literal color of green from head to spur, and his skin was as the bark of an old, willowed tree.

This Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) made his way to the center of the court, and there presented his audience with a challenge.  "O greatest of kings, indulge me in this friendly Christmas game.  Let whichever of your knights is boldest of blood, and wildest of heart, step forth.  Take up arms.  And try, with honor, to land a blow against me.  Whosoever nicks me, shall lay claim to this, my arm".  Here the Knight raised his only weapon.  A battle axe which seem hewed out of the most ancient, yet somehow finest oak imaginable.  Both it's handle, and the blade of sure steel, were of the same color as their owner.  "It's glory and riches shall be thine", spoke the Knight.  "But, thy champ must bind himself to this.  Should he land a blow, then one year, and yuletide hence.  He must seek me out, yonder, to the Green Chapel, six nights to the north.  He shall find me there, and bend a knee, and let me strike him in return.  Be it a scratch on the chest, or a cut in the throat, I will return what was given to me.  And then in trust, and friendship, we shall part.  Who then?  Who is willing to engage with me"?       

The challenge was most vexing.  And none had ever known anyone as strange, and perplexing, as it's deliverer.  No one had ever seen a knight like this before.  Nor could anyone say where he came from, or who he was.  However, it was whispered among the servants, some of whom had spent their childhoods growing up among the rocks, trees, and hills of the forest, that the unearthly countenance of the gentleman in question did appear to resemble a certain Mr. Jack in the Green!  All Arthur and his Knights knew, however, was that there was an intruder in the halls, and the curious part about it all was that he demanded to be dealt with, in the most remarkable way.  The only question left to ask, it seemed, is who would take the Green Knight up on his challenge?  

When put to the test, most of Arthur's Knights were sore feared.  Nor, if it comes to it, were any of them much taken with the notion, in and of itself.  Like their lord and sovereign, these men had known what combat was like.  They'd all of them, to a man, seen how it was, close up, on the field of battle.  In fact, you could even say that part of the reason why they had earned their seat at the table in the first place was because they'd all learned an important lesson.  There may be times when war becomes a necessity.  However, even if that's the case (and pray God it never should be, ever again) then there really is nothing of glory to be found out amidst the fields of blood and carnage.  


Take my word for it.  I know what it's like to hear and go among the last cries of men.  I've wandered ,skulked, and crawled through those charred, carrion wastes myself, on occasion.  Till then, I never thought it was possible to know what regret is.  Better to call those men as are able to come home from such a sight mere survivors, even if some of them are champions or heroes.  As such, there were few that day, who would dare to answer a riddling challenge like this, for they knew there must be a catch.  All combat comes with a price.  It's a lesson all of them had learned.  All except, perhaps, for the young and untried Sir Gawain.

Maybe that explains why he was the only one to step forward and answer the Knight's challenge.  Arthur was even kind enough to lend his nephew Excalibur, none other than his given right to wear the crown.  Arthur cautioned Gawain, however, bearing him remember that it was all a game, what the scribes of the court might have referred to as "A Lyttle an Merrie Geste".  Gawain assured the King he understood.  And so, with perfect confidence, and a surprising skill of ease, he went and cut the Knight's head clean off with one blow.

...Idjit!...

The blasted fool should have been able to spot a con like that from several miles away.  Anyone with half the brains to see could have told him what would come of it.  All that ever happened was for the visitor to calmly rise from the bloodied floor (which now left an unenviable task for the cleaning staff, thank you so bloody much!) and retrieve his now severed head.  With this spectacle complete, the Knight spoke the only other words heard from him that evening.  It was a reminder of a promise, and there was no question of who they were addressed to.  "One year hence", the Knight told Gawain.  And so saying, the visitor climbed once more upon his stead, and left the castle, galloping off into the night, laughing like a demon straight out of perdition's flame.


The New Year came, ripened, and began to gray and turn old, as is its want, for whatever reason.  Even Arthur couldn't help but remark upon it.  "Another year nearly gone", he told Gawain.  This was as the time was nearing for that fateful moment when all knew that the young knight must now venture forth, in order to fulfill his promise.  To say that the less than eager novice was having doubts about the whole affair, is a bit like saying that the mouse doesn't envy having to keep it's eyes peeled about for the cat, or above for the owl or the hawk.  Or me, for that matter.  

All I can say is that if the King's Nephew were ever my quarry, then things could only go one of two ways.  It could be quick, and (relatively) painless.  Or else you could try and fight, and either one of us will have their last minutes of life turned into a world of agony.  This is how we conduct such affairs in my neck of the woods.  So it has merely always been, as far as I can tell, anyway.  I can't say that I can tell all his thoughts, yet Gawain's must have been a fair deal close to what I have just described, as he broached the idea of what the purpose of honoring such a challenge may be?

I'll have to confess to a valid question when it's asked, and this one qualified on all levels.  I wish I had an answer for the young man.  All Arthur could offer him in return was a question.  "Is it wrong to want greatness for you"?  So, one day, with the next Christmas Eve fast approaching, Gawain was given his horse (one Gringolet, by name), and he set out on his journey to find the Green Chapel, and meet on equal terms with the lord and master who resided there.  

What happened next has since past into legend.  It is something they still recount about the fires every time, right about this end of the year's turn.  What's done is done, and now exists, for the most part, as a strand of time and memory.  Just as with all legends, no one tells whatever they can of it, but rather only what they know, or else believe they know, or just however much they can, so far as their lights go.  Yet I am the one with ever an ace in the sleeve.  I was there, you see.  I accompanied the young lad, at least as far as the path that leads to the Chapel Perilous itself.  And I know and can tell you more than just hearsay.


Who am I, anyway, you may ask?  Oh yes, come to think of it, I don't believe we've made a proper acquaintance.  Allow me to introduce myself.  My name is Reynard.  A fox by birth and lineage, and as such, a trickster by trade.  I am what you might call something of a professional.  I am not the father of lies, and yet they come to me just as natural as thought itself.  Unless there's nothing natural about thinking at all, of course.  So perhaps it is best up to you to judge whether I am telling the truth here, or not.  Have you ever stood on the shoulders of literal giants?  Because I have.  What do you suppose the valleys of the fair folken are like, even in the supposed dead of winter?  I can tell you.  Or if you won't believe me on that score, then know this.  I promise you this much of the truth.  What ultimately happened to the young Sir Gawain on his journey to the Green Knight is a story wilder, and more vast, than any here in Camelot can tell.  And even I, an old trickster such as myself, wasn't counting on how it all turned out.

The Studio and the Director.

When it comes to talking about a film like The Green Knight, it really does seem as if sometimes you've got to go out of your way, in order to help others find their bearings.  In this case it means talking a little bit about the director of the film.  Though perhaps a lot more needs to be said about the studio that helped produce and release it.  There are also some challenges to be faced when it comes to the source material itself, and how that was probably always bound to effect the final product.  To start at the simplest level, A24 films has turned out to be the little indie studio that could.  What's made a lot of folks in the audience look at them somewhat askance is in the way they went about building their success.  From the vantage point of the person in the street, A24 almost looks like a late arrival phenomenon.  Just one of those oddities that crop up here and there.  It's as if the whole production company snuck up on everyone, and then announced themselves by doing something weird and outrageous in an ultimately successful bid at getting attention.

What's funny is that if you turn to look at the history of the company, it almost sounds as if their current pop culture identity is something they just kind of fell into by accident.  It seems to have all started out normal enough.  They began with quirky mainstream comedy hits like Spring Breakers, and even average, everyday TV series like Playing House.  The real start of their current incarnation seems to have begun when they took a chance on Alex Garland's Ex Machina.  That's the one where Alicia Vikander plays a robot.  It's also the film that got both critics and audiences heads turning.  This in itself must have been enough to generate good word of mouth.  Pretty soon, directors like Rob Eggars were approaching the studio with their own ideas.  These were the sort of concepts that were either too high art or offbeat for a normal studio to touch.  A24, however, was (and still remains) a small company that didn't have to worry much about questions of reputation, and so Eggars was given the green light.  That's more or less the story of how we got the movie now known as The Witch.

This seems to have been the one-two punch necessary to begin the stampede, as pretty soon the studio found itself flooded with offers from indie filmmakers looking for a chance to put their own, quirky visions on-screen, and A24 appears content with it to this day.  Hell, they're probably just glad they can claim they're a successful business venture.  That, in essence, is how it has now wound up as the premiere patron and maker of latter day surrealist, art house cinema.  It's an evolved house style that relies more on classical romantic symbolism and abstract narrative blocking in order to tell its stories.  This is what accounts for its recent stream of successes, such as The Lobster, Room, The Lighthouse, and Midsommar.  Each of these films deviates wildly from the type of cinema that most audiences prefer today.  This will most likely forever keep A24 as a niche studio.  The highest rating it's ever gotten on Cinemascore is that of a C+.  On the one hand, I guess it's a shame.  On the other, it's kind of easy to see why a movie like The Green Knight can never be anything mainstream.


Before we get to the story proper, however, there is still the director to contend with.  David Lowery is very much a recent addition in the list of modern filmmakers.  What that means in practice is that it's still too early in some ways to determine just where his career is headed at this moment in time.  His first appearance on the big screen came in the form of the 2013 indie drama, Ain't Them Bodies Saints.  From there, he was almost immediately tapped by none other than the Disney Company to helm their 2016 remake of Pete's Dragon.  After this, Lowery returned to A24 and his indie roots for the somewhat abortive attempt at naval gazing known as A Ghost Story (2018).  This was followed not long after by the Scorsese style, true-life crime drama, The Old Man & the Gun.  So far, The Green Knight marks the director's latest entry in cinema to date, and right now it seems to be the one generating the most comment.  This is true especially among fandom in the fantasy genre community.  The debate hinges on just what the film is up to, and whether or not that amounts to a good or bad thing.

Capturing a Legend Onscreen.

This leaves us with just the legend itself, and it's adaptation.  When it was released in theaters, one of the first things that struck me going into this flick was just how divisive it was.  Audiences and critics seemed split down the middle over it.  The critics seemed eager to trip themselves up over some perceived sense of "daring" that was happening up on the screen.  The average viewer, meanwhile cited a number of complaints against the film.  The chief one being that it was boring and pretentious, with too much dead air, in which not a lot winds up happening.  Some even complained that it was a disservice to the original legend, or medieval poem, from which it took inspiration.

For a film that is able to generate this much comment and confusion in the audience, it would be of great help for any critic to have a well grounded base, or vantage point from which to begin.  The good news is that it seems as if the director himself was willing to oblige for whatever reason on this point.  Not long after The Green Knight's release in theaters, Penguin Random House issued a re-release of an old translation of the original Sir Gawain and the Green Knight poem as a tie-in addition to the film.  I'm sort of glad they did this, as it features a new forward by Lowery himself.  It's there that the director more or less takes pity on both viewers and readers, by sharing his thoughts about the making of the film.  He begins with a quote from his own movie.  "They're tales I've heard, songs that have been sung to me.  I write them down and - don't tell anyone this - when I see room for improvements: I make them (vii)".  The director then goes on to make a revealing, and fascinating, commentary for the reader.

"What was I thinking when I wrote this," Lowery asks?  "I knew what I was getting myself into when I wrote that line, and at one point even omitted it from the screenplay for fear that it was simply too brazen.  But some brew of hubris and humor compelled me to restore it, and now it's there, in the final cut, an hour and change into the movie; a permanent reminder to myself that, when adapting a work like the one you now hold in your hands, improvement is simply not possible.  The best one can hope for is a glimmer of a reflection of the original that, in the best of cases, might drive readers back to the source to discover everything you merely scratched the surface of (ibid)".

The first note that strikes the reader about Lowery statement is a surprising one.  In an era when it seems as if every contemporary artist feels the need to stand on the tips of their toes in order to make themselves feel important (while seemingly sabotaging even their noblest efforts at the same time, for some reason) Lowery's bare faced humility might just have no other choice except to come off as a marvel to the vast majority.  Indeed, reading his introduction to the Penguin translation manages to be both informative and something of a surprising revelation of sorts.  From there, Lowery gives a brief bit of backstory on how he first encountered the poem as a college kid, and the whole thing managed to get stuck in his memory.  He also details the way interacting with the poem might have led him to a discovery that tons of dedicated bookworms have learned over the whole course of history.  Sometimes, when you try to crack the puzzle of a book, you might be surprised over the ways that a good story can shape the reader.  This is a truism that Lowery appears to have recently found out for himself.

"So, when I randomly decided in 2018 that I wanted to make a medieval adventure film, this poem presented itself as a ready made option.  I eagerly began to reread the original text, and indeed grew so excited at its potential that I began to write the screenplay before I'd finished reading.  This may have been a mistake; when you watch the finished film, you will see evidence of my very linear and rather literal journey through a text I didn't thoroughly comprehend.  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a relatively short work, but its brevity belies a thematic density that cannot be plumbed in one semester of college, or in the process of an adaptation, or in the production of a film.  There is, to put it mildly, a whole lot going on here.

"Indeed, it is one of those works about which I wonder whether the depth of interpretation exceeded its unknown author's intent.  When I make a film, I try to enrich it with thematic subtexts; I also know that there will be accidental allusions, little subconscious repositories of meaning that more astute viewers will pick up on, that are as unintentional as they are undeniable; and I know too that there are those projections, derived from the very slightest contextual evidence, that are so beyond my intentions that all I can do is shake my head at them - but who am I to argue with anyone who takes the time read that deeply into something I've made (viii-ix)".  And so, Lowery has brought us to the one thing that matters most in this business, the story itself.  When it comes to arriving at any possible understanding of the poem in question, the director is surprisingly helpful yet again.  One of the translations of the poem that Lowery urges his readers to try on for size is an edition made and posthumously published by none other than J.R.R. Tolkien himself.


In some ways, Lowery's forward is one of those rare opportunities.  The ultimate job of any critic is to try and arrive at as clear and precise an understanding of any given work of art that the writing can allow.  The very task itself is challenge enough, so when a director or artist is as forthcoming as Lowery is here, then saying it makes the critic's job easier, or that a favor has been done, is a bit like saying the sky is alternately blue and black, with occasional shades of gray and reds.  It may be the truth, and yet somehow the fact that the critic is granted this much help in arriving at a valid aesthetic conclusion just makes the obvious vote of thanks come off as trite.  What's really happened here is that both critics and audiences have been allowed to make a genuine advance in understanding the film.  There's nothing a good critic can appreciate more than finding or being granted all the necessary information that's needed in order to properly understand a work of art.  

Lowery has told us to look to the poem itself, and even handed us over to one of the most useful guides in the history and literature of medieval times.  So, with all this in mind, what does one of the main maestros of modern fantasy fiction have to say that could possibly help us gain our bearings?  The best place to start might be with the W.P. Ker Memorial Lecture on the original poem, in which Tolkien explains that: "It is one of those greater works which not only bear the trampling of the Schools, endure becoming a text, indeed (severest test) a set text, but yield more and more under this pressure.  For it belongs to that literary kind which has deep roots in the past, deeper even than it's author was aware of.  It is made of tales often told before and elsewhere, and of elements that derive from remote times, beyond the vision of the poet: like Beowulf, or some of Shakespeare's major plays, such as King Lear or Hamlet.

"It is an interesting question: what is this flavor, this atmosphere, this virtue that such rooted works have; and which compensates for the inevitable flaws and imperfect adjustments that must appear, when plots, motives, symbols, are rehandled and pressed into the service of the changed minds of a later time, used for the expression of ideas quite different from those which produced them...Antiquity like a many-figured back-cloth hangs ever behind the scene.  Behind our poem stalk the figures of elder myth, and through the lines are heard the echoes of ancient cults, beliefs and symbols remote from the consciousness of an educated moralist (but also a poet) of the late fourteenth century (109-10)".

I think what Tolkien has done something of a favor for the average, confused viewer in the aisles, here.  Right off the bat, he acknowledges that the Gawain poem is a story that is influenced and undergrided by a host of ancient Celt, and perhaps even pre-Celtic myths and ideas.  In other words, it is an archetype that contains all its accumulated, earlier faces as part and parcel of its identity.  The reason why this kind of background knowledge is useful is because of the way it helps us situate and make sense of what we see on the screen.  We start out on a setting and setup that wouldn't seem all that out of place in a regular episode of Game of Thrones.  Then things shifts to the arrival at Camelot, and Lowery begins to let the story do the talking.  I think it's a this point where everyone, both fans and detractors start to lose their bearings, and hence their grasp on the situation.  From the minute Ralph Ineson walks in front of the camera, the entire film starts to hew more closely to its source material, and a lot less to our current conceptions of what a fantasy epic should be.  A lot of it is because of what the recent history of the genre has lead us to expect.  We're accustomed either to the Tolkien or George R.R. Martin approach, or ways of doing things, when it comes to the iconography that Lowery sets before us.

The very fact that he instead veers back into the original source material from which all our modern notions of Sword and Sorcery comes from is probably what has thrown his viewers off, and has left them all scrambling, not for whatever explanations they want, but rather only what they can reach for with the limited understanding of Arthurian stories that they have.  It leaves both the average viewer and critic in a state of confusion, which probably accounts for it's mixed reception.  Perhaps Lowery could have found some way of cushioning the transition to come in some manner.  However, I'm not sure what that would have been, or how it would have played out.  Besides, the poem itself offers no such apologies, and Lowery is doing little more in these opening moment than sticking as close to the main text as possible, with the only major changes being minor details of character relationships and dynamics.  There are deviations in this, and yet the funny thing is how they never seem to amount to anything fundamentally drastic.  Instead, it appears that being true to the material is what paradoxically pulls the rug out from under the audience.  Nor does Lowery seem all that concerned with making things easier from here.


As soon as the story proper begins, and Gawain sets out on his quest, then what happens next could almost be described as a surrealistic walking tour through a landscape out of Tolkien, as rendered here and there by Salvador Dali, with Patel himself acting as our ostensible guide, who is often just as befuddled as ourselves.  It also might just be my favorite sequence in the entire picture.  It starts out relatively small, with a seemingly normal encounter with a group of roadside bandits.  It's when this company of marauders exits the story that the stage setting itself, and the events that follow, begin to take a turn for the weird.  The main character may or might not hallucinate himself as a rotting skeleton.  He then goes on to encounter the ghost of a Saint, meets and befriends Reynard the Fox, and briefly meets up with a herd of retreating giants.  All of this is framed and filmed in such a way as to leave the casual viewer scratching their head, and asking just one question: "What the actual fuck"?!

To be fair, it is just possible to see how this is a very genuine and natural reaction on the part of the novice.  And yet, none of it seems to change the surprising truth that a turn back to the actual source material, and the assistance of a good commentator like Tolkien is able to help make the whole thing clear.  It's then you begin to realize that the strange secondary world that Gawain travels and guides us through is very much the same as that of the poem.  It's all like Tolkien says.  The poem is made up of elements of far older myths and legends.  The old Oxford scholar is even helpful enough to provide his readers with a list of tropes that the Gawain Poet wound up using in his finished composition - "such as the Beheading Game, the Perilous Host, the Green Man, the Sunlike mythical figure that looms behind...Gawain, nephew of King Arthur, as certainly if more remotely as the Bear-boy lurks behind the heroic Beowulf, nephew of King Hygelac (111)".  This, then, is the literary DNA of the story Lowery has chosen to work with and inside of.  It's probably to the director's credit that the finished product amounts to a surprisingly sophisticated awareness of the ancient mythology in back of the main plot.

This, then, is the ultimate explanation for the strangeness that greets the casual viewer over the course of the film.  It is no more than Lowery being true to the content of the text.  This is what allows the director to de-familiarize the usual standard setting we think we've known for all these years.  It's not a case of the artist changing anything up.  He's just brought all the rest of the stuff we've lost track of into the fullness of the spotlight.  The result is a landscape that is a rich combination of the strange and familiar all at once.  It's a terrain where the medieval and the mythological somehow manage to exist side by side, as was common in the old legends.  Here is a place where Saints can rub shoulders easily with the Fair Folk, and even the animals may learn the art of speech.  At the same time, Lowery finds ways of connecting this landscape up with concerns that would have been near to Tolkien's heart.  Nowhere is this more obvious than in the encounter with the giants.  


The entire scene appears to be an evocation of the same notion that was explored in the closing pages of Lord of the Rings.  Much like the Hobbits of Tolkien's work, Gawain is the inhabitant of a fantastic realm.  Also like the Everyman protagonists of the later trilogy, the would-be knight finds himself in a world that seems poised on the cusp of major changes.  It may still be possible to find elves in the forests, or dragons hidden the mountain wastes, yet there is the lingering sense that the time for such encounters is slowly reaching it's end.  The world is becoming as inhospitable to the Green Man as it is to the giants, and Gawain seems to be catching up with them just as final departures are being made.  The age of marvels and wonders is almost over.  The age of men is just beginning.

Conclusion: A Future Underground Classic?

There is at least one familiar note to the mixed response The Green Knight received upon it's release.  Critics kept fawning over it like the darling of hour, for some reason.  Whereas the majority of the average audience seems to have had little choice except to come away as confused and irritated.  After giving the film a look for myself, and looking at the comments made from both sides of aisles, I think it's possible to arrive at a correct enough conclusion on the film.  The trick is that part of getting there means figuring out where both groups of viewers went wrong.  Let's take the case of the general audience, first.  The complaints that have been lodged against the film is that its story is muddled, and or difficult to follow along.  It seems as if each passage of the narrative, and every single line of dialogue is too cryptic or gnomic for its own good.  In addition to this, it's asserted that there are problems of pacing.  The film is claimed to move too slow, and there are moments in which nothing is really happening.  These elements combine to make the whole viewing experience something of a mess.  At least this is what the person in the aisles believes.

When we turn from this segment of viewers to that of the critics, a curious reversal takes place.  It's almost as if the complaints don't even exist, and instead a sort wild, universal acclaim is the order of the day.  There's just one thing that bugs me about these accolades, and I'm not sure whether anyone else has noticed this, or even cared all that much if they did.  What I'm about to say next could be viewed as a pointless nitpick.  However, I can't help thinking it needs to be pointed out, as it signals just as great a misreading as the response gleaned from the general audience.  In some ways, it can even be argued that it amounts to an even greater fault.  The average viewer can only respond as they know how to for any given movie that's set in front of them.  The critic, on the other hand, because of the nature of their task, should (in theory) be able to hold themselves to the kind of standard that would help bridge such gaps in understanding.  The ideal critic, whether of books or film, should at least realize that their purpose is to help explain the story for the audience.  This is true especially if they either believe the work they are covering is something of value, or else they are able to find certifiable proof that any given story qualifies as good.

This is the demand under which all critics are meant to ostensibly operate under.  At the end of the day it might all just amount to another working stiff job, like construction work, or accounting.  However, there's always this duty of trying to lend a helping hand.  If a story is good, and you can prove it, then by all means do so.  Just remember that you, as a critic, are here to tell the truth about art, and nothing else.  That's why I couldn't help notice a trend in all the favorable views of Lowery's film.  For whatever reason, all the critics who liked it kept on circling around this one, major idea in their attempts to describe it.  The best terms for this idea might be expressed in phrases such as subversive, subversion, or even, as Rotten Tomatoes likes to phrase it, deconstruction.  They may all just sound like words.  However, the kicker with any word is that it always carries a meaning.  And in some cases, it is possible to know more than just what the speaker was saying in the moment.  Ever so often, certain words find themselves chosen as prime expressions of an entire worldview, or outlook.  Either that, or they have merely been pressed into service of whatever the fad or trend of the moment happens to be.

The latter case seems to be what's going on here when it comes to The Green Knight and the critics.  For a lot of complex, and intertwining reasons, both artists and critics have been on this kick for some time now.  As far as I can tell, they keep using phrases like "Subversion" and "Deconstruction" as if they were these strange, verbal talismans.  It's a trend that's been reappearing in both books, films, and even the critical commentary for some time now.  There's sort of this obsessional quality to all it's appearances.  In fact, I almost want to say that it looks a great deal like the psychological phenomenon of totem and taboo.  

Artists and critics seem hung up on the idea, for some reason.  Like they think it will help them achieve some sort of power, or ill-defined goal.  As best I can tell, it does seem as if some or most of it is being done in the service of a hoped for ethical outcome.  If it's a question of morality, then I  can find no real objection, so long as we are dealing with morals proper.  The trouble starts when you let tempers flare, and get in the way of commonsense.  If you would be a latter day knight in shining armor, then try and succeed, if you think you can.  However, you don't help your case by getting caught up in parlor games.  That kind of tactic doesn't serve issues like liberty and equality.  It's a lot more like fiddling while Rome burns, or sawing off the tree branch you're perched on.  If it's morality you want, then you'll simply have to learn to do better than that.


And here's where I really have to apologize if it seems like we've gone way too far afield from the subject of this post.  In a way, I'm afraid that, yeah, we have.  That's because, as crazy as it may sound, all of the above was a snapshot of the crossfire nonsense into which Lowery's film has more or less found itself engulfed by.  It really does seem as if one half of the viewers is lost at sea with the film, while the other can only watch in terms of tilting at the windmills of the moment, and unable to see the forest for the trees.  The point is that this is not an ideal setup in which to make what ought to be a simple judgement call on a measly, freakin' work of art!  With this all in mind, is it any wonder that the response to Knight has been so mixed up from start to finish.  This isn't criticism.  I'm not even sure it counts as a genuine viewing experience.  It just comes off as more like a mutual cooperation in ignorance, at least as far as I'm concerned.  If this is the current norm of things, then I'm afraid something has gone very wrong somewhere.  That's not how you enjoy any kind of story.

In order to do that right, something else needs to happen.  You have to pay as close attention to the artwork in front of you, in the hopes that it will reveals it's secrets.  Then you have to weigh and value the evidence of the text itself.  That's how you determine whether the final product is good or bad.  If we take this simple approach, and use it on a film like The Green Knight, then what do we get?  On the whole, I'd have to say that the final product matches up well with Tolkien's thoughts about the original poem.  "The story is good enough in itself.  It is a romance, a fairy tale for adults, full of life and color; and it had virtues that would be lost in a summary, though they can be perceived when it is read at length: good scenery, urbane and humorous dialogue, and a skillfully ordered narrative (16)".  Everything he says there about the poem is something that I believe can apply just as well to the movie adaptation.  Are there any difference?  Well, yes and not so much, if that makes any sense.  There is one alteration that Lowery makes to the material.  The complete irony is that in some ways it counts as such a minor thing, that anyone going into the film blind, with no knowledge whatever about the poem it's based off of, would likely just sit through the whole thing and not notice anything out of place.  

In a sense, that could be because the one alteration Lowery does allow himself to make is of the kind that just can't fundamentally shake things out of place.  We are not dealing with the kind of artistic choices seen in films like The Last Jedi.  Instead, all that happens is the exact same legend with just one single change, one that still allows the story to keep its original identity.  Once more, it is Tolkien who helps us gain a sense of just what kind of individuality that story has.  In fact, he can also help us see how Lowery might even be said to have kept things in continuity.  "(All) this care in formal construction serves also to make the tale a better vehicle of the 'moral' which the author has imposed on his antique material.  He has re-drawn according to his own faith his ideal of knighthood...in Sir Gawain (the Poet, sic) has given life to his ideal by showing it incarnate in a living person, modified by his individual character, so that we can see a man trying to work the ideal out, see its weaknesses (or man's weaknesses) (ibid)".

I think it's that last part, where the Gawain Poet is spoken of as both trying to bring life to an ideal, while also trying to test it out against human nature, that is the linking point between the poem's anonymous, medieval writer, and a modern director like Lowery.  Both artists find themselves confronted with an idea, and it's dramatic potential, and each sets about telling it as best they know how.  They each try to work it out as best and as far as their creative light can take the material.  The one update that Lowery gives to the material lies in his treatment of the main character, and not the overall aim of the plot itself, which ultimately sticks to the point of the original.  The figure of Gawain has been made more of a contemporary figure in the film version.  Rather than any perfect knight, he is shown as something of a reflection of a modern, disenchanted Everyman, one who is intimidated by the world of legend that he is surrounded by.  At first, he is concerned with nothing more his own personal glory.  He is eager to "make a name for himself", when we first meet him.  In a perfect example of "be careful what you wish for", the chance arrives in the form of the titular Knight.

Gawain earns his name, yet in doing so, he inadvertently kicks open a door that allows all the fantastical content of the original poem to come poring in and give him more than he bargained for.  I don't know if this was intentional on Lowery's part, yet it's the kind of twist that wouldn't be out of place in a Twilight Zone episode.  From there, Gawain finds himself in over his head for the remainder of the film.  He's a modern man who craves knighthood, yet he doesn't have the character for it yet.  He doesn't care a fig for a world of marvels, and so he is surrounded by the settings and creatures of "elder myth" everywhere he goes.  He thinks he knows what he wants for himself, and yet he's not sure why.  What happens, as a result, is that, in essence, the plot and main themes of the poem show up, and our modern-minded novice knight-in-training has to be dragged, kicking and screaming into a world of (gulp!) adventure!  The funny thing is how that setup is just the kind you'd find in a work by Tolkien.


As I've said, none of this amounts to the poem itself being set aside for whatever popular trend of the moment.  Lowery himself confessed that the process of making the film left him with a genuine sense of respect for the source material, and he wound trying to do all he could to preserve the original in a modern voice.  The final result of his efforts is an intriguing piece.  The poem itself is something of a jaunt through the world of myth, and that world is preserved intact on-screen.  By making just one change to Gawain's character, however.  By turning the seasoned knight into a complete novice (who is also something of a fish out of water), Lowery has granted the proceedings an interesting kind of note.  The curious part is that even this added note is nothing new, and is more of a callback to another traditional storytelling trope.  I suppose the best way I can put it is to say that this is what a fantasy film would play like if it was written by T.S. Eliot, with a bit of help from Tolkien thrown in, here and there.

In other words, I've read critical essays comparing the film to works like Apocalypse Now, or poetry such as The Waste Land, and when you are able to sit down and watch the flick with enough cultural literacy under the hood, you can kind of begin to see what some others are talking about.  In the same way that Coppola's Vietnam story is not really a typical war film, so The Green Knight is very much an atypical fantasy flick.  It is chock full of incident, and yet it's loyalty to the source material results in set pieces that may be unfamiliar to anyone who knows nothing of medieval literature.  It is a journey, or a quest, yet it is not about victory over any sort of tyrannical empire, and is instead a lot more about a journey toward self-understanding.  The interesting part is this.  There is no element of this which is out of place, or is unfamiliar to an audience.  It's just that it's a type of prototypical quest narrative that seems to have fallen out of popularity due to a scarcity of use.  We find ourselves in a well known setting, surrounded by all the familiar trappings of the fantasy genre.  However, they are all utilized in a way that doesn't seem expected to modern eyes, and yet in reality it's all very much in keeping with the long established traditions of the genre.

This is where Tolkien can be of service once more.  He made an observation about the Arthurian mythos a long time ago.  In a neat twist of irony, fate, or call it whatever you want, what he had to say on the subject goes a long way toward explaining the predicament that Lowery's film is always going to have to find itself in.  A good description of this dilemma might be to call it the Arthurian Paradox.  This is how Tolkien explains it in one of his Collected Letters.  It is there that he notes the following problems with the Camelot mythos.  "For one thing it's "faerie" is too lavish, and fantastical, incoherent and repetitive (144)".  When he's speaking of the story being "too fantastical", I think some clarification is in order.  A close look at his statement reveals that Tolkien's gripe isn't with fantasy as such.  If that were true then he'd have to be one of biggest liers in history.  Instead, his use of the word in this letter all hangs on, and is predicated by its expression in the two others that follow it.  The problem is that the Arthur cycle as too "incoherent and repetitive", not that it is a fantasy.


It's with this proper understanding of Tolkien's words in mind that things maybe begin to make a bit more sense.  At least I can see what he's getting at, based on the way our experiences of the whole thing do seem to line up a great deal.  Roger Green, for example, tried to take the whole collection of scattered sketches and compile them into one, single, narrative through-line for young adult readers.  The trouble there is that even with all the skill Green is able to bring to the table, I'm still stuck with the sense that I'm reading the bits and pieces of different ideas that just don't go mesh together as well as they should.  Besides this, the way each chapter in the book plays out reads as if I'm observing some half-forgotten village ritual that no one can remember all that well anymore.  It's neither novel, nor play, but more like a half-hearted pageant show whose use sort of got worn out along the way.  With all due respect, that's just not my idea of good writing.  And Tolkien appears to have been of a similar mind on this.  I think an excellent reason why is because he long ago came to the same conclusion as that reached by the good people over at the Overly Sarcastic Productions YouTube channel.

They did a brief overview about the Arthur mythos as a whole, not long ago.  It also seems like they've done their homework.  After as careful an investigation of the stories that make up the Camelot legends, and their sources, the makers of the channel arrived at a conclusion is probably as startling, as it is also pretty obvious, when you think about it.  "Everyone knows something about King Arthur.  Whether you watched Sword in the Stone as a kid, listened to Camelot as an adult, or just existed in a part of the world in which Britain was briefly in charge, you know about King Arthur.  But if you ever tried to look into King Arthur, to try and find some sort of canon for the story.  You were probably both confused and disappointed.  Maybe you read somewhere that Merlin aged backwards, but then couldn't find any evidence to support that.  Maybe you wanted to know about the Holy Grail, and ended up reading fifty pages about some Fisher King guy, instead...Whatever the case, while Arthurian mythos is very widespread, and most people have at least some knowledge of the basic structure of the story, when you start tugging at the threads, the entire setup starts to lose cohesion (web)".


In essence, then, when it comes to the Legends of Camelot, what we're dealing with here seems to be the roughest of initial first drafts.  There might be a genuine archetype worth telling about.  However, the trouble is that all the original writers who devoted themselves to the project, the ones who gave us the whole idea of Arthur and his Court to begin with, all went about it in such a frayed and patch-work kind of way, as to leave us with little more than a bare beginners outline.  And even some of the crucial sounding elements just won't fit together as well as they should.  This is definitely the case when it comes to the conflicting ideas of the downfall of the kingdom, or even if there was any kind of downfall at all.  Hell, Morgan Le Fay wasn't even a villain in her original appearances.  That's probably a good benchmark for just how scattered all to hell the whole thing really is.  And this seems to have been the truth Tolkien arrived at over time.  He sounds like he would have been perfectly happy with a complete and coherent mythos.  The trouble was that he couldn't find one anywhere he turned.  He would have liked to come across a completed story, except he was given nothing to work with.  He took it as sort of a tough break, it's true.  And yet, well, some people wish rain were beer.  But it ain't.

The irony remains that the single episode out of the entire cycle that still remained viable, in Tolkien's eyes, was this same story of Gawain, the Knight, and Beheading Challenge.  I have to tend to agree with that assessment, as the poem itself really does seem to be the best offering out of the original lot.  It also appears to be the basic strength of that story that Lowery is able to draw upon in order to make his film work.  Tolkien seems to view it as the closest anyone has ever got to a complete, and near as total adventure story out of the whole mythos.  Lowery himself appears to have figured out at least part of this allure.  Enough, anyway, to have produced a very competent adaptation out of it.  Even the sole shift from the original source material, that being the character of Gawain, seems to work in it's favor, while also serving as it own echo back to the main text.  It's the first time that the main character himself is presented in such phrases as "wanting", and "unworthy".  The curious part is that all Lowery is able to accomplish with this creative choice is to highlight the values that were sometimes able to inhere in the actual mythos itself.  Rather than wanting to deconstruct Camelot, Lowery's Gawain (and by extension, the audience observing his journey) are left understanding why such archetypes are necessary, as well as why we keep coming back to them time and again.

That just leaves us with the pivitol question.  How does the story work as a whole?  Is it the kind of film that most audiences will like?  Well, there is an answer to that question.  However, it's also kind of ironic.  I came away thoroughly entertained.  I might also be forever in the minority on this one.  Nor is this for any of the usual reasons.  Like I said above, Lowery is not following any deconstructionist path.  That's not where the trouble lies, it's something else, instead.  The real truth of the matter hinges on a question.  Does art sell?  The answer to that is yes, however some art is probably always going to sell better than others.  The world at large is familiar with a film like Back to the Future.  How many are familiar with films like Chimes at Midnight, or 2001: A Space Odyssey?  All three are classics, and yet only the first is looked at fondly by the majority.  The rest have been consigned to the art house shelf.  I think that's the sort of place where a film like The Green Knight is destined to find a home.  It's a legitimate masterpiece that will forever remain one of the ultimate underground successes.


There's a further reason for that, as it turns out.  And I think that the words of academic scholar Daniele Cybulskie can help us out here.  In her review of the film, for the website Medievalists.net, Cybulskie opens with a very powerful statement.  "For many years, medievalists have gone to the movies with the expectation that their beloved stories will be given only lip service in favour of directorial changes meant to pander to a modern audience. With The Green Knight, they are in for a surprise. Instead of sacrificing its fourteenth-century source entirely, this movie is jaw-droppingly faithful to many detailed moments from the poem, to the point at which some modern movie-goers may find it perplexing. At the same time, it also makes fundamental, and predictable, changes to the central character and story that hardcore Gawain fans likely won’t appreciate. The result is a movie that falls somewhere between a medieval tale and modern art film, and may therefore be one of the first that is more beloved by medieval scholars than by the box office (web)".

She goes on from there to offer some further insight.  "On the plus side for medievalists is the fine and faithful detail to the poem – everything from the green knight showing up with a holly branch in his hand, to the horse being called Gringolet, to the orchestrations of Morgan le Fay (in this film, she is Gawain’s mother, not his aunt). I even made a joke going in about the pentangle on Gawain’s shield, something explained at length in the poem that I was completely sure would never make the film. And yet, there it was: a shield with a pentangle on the front, and the Virgin Mary painted on the inside – and even an explanation of the manifold virtues related to the number five! Undergraduates will have a field day with a choice moment in which the mysterious lady muses about why the green knight is green, and what it might symbolize.

"But it’s here in the musing that modern audiences will likely get lost. The Green Knight has many long, long artistic shots and philosophical speeches, and many moments where Gawain is simply alone in the landscape. Although Dev Patel has a captivating presence and really lives the role, there are many points where he is (rightly) just giving us suffering. Since the title holds the word “knight” in it, and it’s a medieval movie, modern audiences may easily go into it expecting massive battles and not a man’s internal struggle. While the characters in the poem have many happy moments, the film has a very typical “medieval” joylessness, and without epic battles, it’s hard to say if modern audiences will be willing to suffer with Gawain for the long haul.


"Overall, The Green Knight will give medievalists at least one line on their bingo cards: low lighting; environmental misery; a brothel; drunkenness and brawling; cold, arranged marriages; unnecessary cruelty, and so on. On the other hand, this is such an in-depth love letter to a medieval poem and to its director’s specific vision of the Middle Ages that it might alienate modern audiences, even as it makes some major changes to character and plot to accommodate them. While modern viewers may wonder when the action will begin, medievalists will want to watch again for the little moments like the one in which Gawain browses some manuscripts that contain images of the planetary spheres, or reads a little bit of Middle English aloud.

"While it’s not likely to be a blockbuster with its slow pace and artistic choices, The Green Knight is the first in a long time that medievalists will appreciate for its sometimes fierce loyalty to the source material, even if this version of Gawain is not the one we love and are familiar with. Bring with you the mental flexibility you need to enjoy Arthurian literature, major motion pictures, and art house films all in one, and you’ll find much to talk about (ibid)".  Here, then, is the best explanation I've heard for the film's mixed reception.  If Cybulskie is right, then perhaps this half-ways response is going to have to be something of an inevitability.  The director isn't at fault in making a bad film.  Instead, it's more as if Lowery succeeded in making a good project that was still "out of date" as far as modern audiences are concerned.  The Middle Ages were a long time ago, after all.  We may be living off the inherited story tropes of that generation, but that's not the same as having a full understanding of how stories were told way back when.  Enough time has gone by for our standards of good writing to shift and change out of almost all recognition.  The tastes of a modern audience are not necessarily those of one from the same Middle Ages in which the original poem was born and composed.

And it is precisely this fact, believe it or not, wherein the whole problem lies.  What Lowery has done is to successfully tell a medieval poem in essentially its own, original idiom.  That makes it a story that's hard for the modern viewer to digest.  The curious part is how that's also obviously not true of everyone in the aisles, otherwise it wouldn't have been able to generate an enthusiastic group of fans.  So I guess we're left with an intriguing question.  Can a film ever be good if it tells the story right, and yet still doesn't win over the crowd?  Remember, we're not talking about movies that are clearly bad, here.  That is an open and shut case.  This is one where you might have to put some extra consideration into it.  My own answer is that I'm afraid I like it too much to ever be able to call it a failure.  At the same time, it's clear this is the sort of film that will never be a mainstream success.  There is nothing inherently wrong with it's narrative, except that it's too outmoded for our contemporary scene.  And appeals to stuff like Lord of the Rings won't help either.  What Tolkien and Jackson did was take the medieval materials, and run it through a thoroughly modern narrative lens that was easy for viewers and readers to grasp.


Lowery, on the other hand, has sort of gone and done the exact opposite.  He told the story in its own idiom, and it's no surprise that most of us are not quite used to it.  That doesn't make it a bad film, just an underground phenomenon.  It's the sort of deal where both parties are going to have to call no foul, go their separate ways, and consider it breaking even.  At the same time, I do sort of hold out hope that it will start to pick up more appreciation as time goes by.

At the close of his forward to the Penguin tie-in, Lowery makes the following observations.  "I now arrive at the end of this journey with a finished film that I'll happily admit cannot do justice to the well from which it is drawn.  This may be a poem that resists adaptation, and yet I find myself now with a perverse, pathological desire to try again.  Those hooks that were first sunk into me nearly twenty years ago have not been pulled loose by making my own movie.  I imagine a not-unhappy life spent obsessively adapting it, again and again, each refined iteration illuminating a different aspect of the poem, offering some perspective on the whys and hows of its resonance - and none ever coming close to improving upon it (ix)".  To which I reply that this is one of the reasons artists always need a critic around.  My advice to the director would be something like, "Learn to quit while you're ahead, Dave.  You did alright right here.  So take David Letterman's advice.  "Why screw up a good thing, huh"?


With that said, I can't say it was time wasted.  In fact, what with the film itself, paying attention to the audience response to it, and the interactions that resulted afterword, plus the treasure trove of myth and critical commentary that it helped get me interested in during the whole process, leaves me with the conviction that this has been one of the most enjoyable experiences I've had as a practicing, amateur critic.  It's true this might not be a film for everyone.  It's also a fact that it is the sort of story that can grow on you, if you give it a chance, and learn to appreciate its archaism, and the way it has of telling itself.  That's why I'm willing to urge readers everywhere to try and give The Green Knight a chance.  With any luck, it could open all sorts of doors, ones that you probably didn't even know where there. 

2 comments:

  1. (1) For what it's worth, I don't think I've seen an A24 film yet that I didn't like. I've only seen a few, so that's not exactly a meaningful stat; but still. More importantly, they've successfully given themselves the brand of quality. People who gravitate toward their films seem to feel as if they know what they're getting (i.e., something outside the box and of high quality). It's a bit similar to the way HBO original series used to be -- and to some extent still are -- assumed to be of top-shelf quality.

    (2) I've not seen Lowery's version of "Pete's Dragon," but I've heard it's great. His next film is also for Disney: a live-action "Peter Pan." Jude Law is playing Captain Hook!

    (3) I work at a theatre, and though I did not see "The Green Knight" (I wanted to, but I'm so lazy with movie-watching of late that I really ought to be shot for a traitor to both my profession and my alleged interests) I did get to hear a few reactions from a group of co-workers who screened it the night before it came out. This was mostly high-schoolers. They were confused, to say the least, and also seemed to be vaguely disturbed in ways they could not quite put into words. It was a milder version of what happened a few years before when a different set of mostly-high-schoolers screened "Midsommar." A24: unsettling high-schoolers again and again! Not a bad selling point, to be honest.

    (4) I've had a copy of Tolkien's translation (and "Pearl"/"Orfeo") for 20+ years and still have not read it! Someday!

    (5) My guess is that the movie will indeed come to be considered a classic. The people who love it seem to really love it, and the fact that the majority of audiences are bemused by it will not matter. Those folks aren't going to devote much time to continually insisting that the movie is __________, but the ones who are enamored of it absolutely will spend time hyping it up for themselves and others. Not sure if it will quite count as a cult film or not, but it wouldn't surprise me. Dang, I need to see this, don't I?

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    1. (1) It looks to be something that is, and isn't a new thing. It looks very much like an indie studio version of the sort of late 60s art house theater that would devote itself to bringing names like Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa to mainstream awareness.

      The major difference is this brand's focus seems aimed more toward the Kenneth Anger, Ken Russell, or Luis Bunuel and Jodorowsky type of film. Nice to know they've made a name for themselves, even if it stems from mainly fulfilling a niche demand.

      (2) Me niether, though I don't recall hearing a thing about the former film. Must have slipped under the radar in my neck of the woods. As for the new "Pan" film, my one concern is whether they will let Lowery find the right way into the story, or whether he winds up forced to tow the Mouse House brand line. If "Green Knight" is what he's capable of when allowed to do his own thing, what about working under official company demands, what then?

      (3) My guess is it's always a see-saw problem that every audience faces. Sometimes it is possible for their to be films where their judgment call is mostly valid. There's nothing all that out of the ordinary with Lowery's film. Indeed, I almost want to call it quaintly old fashioned. I think the main issue in this case is that he's using the iconography of fantasy in just that far, older way. Pete Jackson has conditioned us to think of the fantasy genre as this very specific type of story, when even Tolkien knew there were other forms out there, and the "Gawain" poem was just one out of a whole cauldron of many.

      (4) I'd recommend it. Perhaps there's a sense in which it can said to display Tolkien "making an advance", though not in any critical way. I don't mean to suggest he could ever have surpassed LOTR. Instead, it's more that a lot of what he writes there gives a sense of the scope of his critical acumen. If he'd never made it as an author of fantasy fiction (he wrote, dutifully biting his tongue), something tells he would still have made a hell of a literary critic.

      (5) It seems reasonable to assume that it will go on to achieve some kind of classical status. It just remains to be seen which kind. Right now, it looks like it could go either way, either as Oscar Bait territory, or else as a proud member of the Midnight Cult circuit. If I had to take a guess, I'd say it was headed for the latter, and I'm having a difficult time finding any real shame in that.

      Like, I can see a lot of Art House types using this as an example of a good, yet slightly unorthodox Christmas movie (inasmuch as a medieval morality tale can ever be said to be "unorthodox", whatever that is anymore). In this case, the choice can be supported by the fact that the whole film does revolve around the holidays. So there's always that to fall back on, if it even matters.

      ChrisC.



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